The Thrill of the Unexpected

Recently, I was preparing for a trip and was in the mood for a mystery. With nothing new out from my favorite authors, I searched on-line. I ended up downloading two books, one set in North Wales, one of my favorite places in the world, and the other in Belfast.

Both of these books are the first in a series, but I’m not sure I’ll buy the next ones. As I read them, the writer part of me kept analyzing.  I could easily tick off the various character/plot conventions: Beleaguered and frustrated hero, a police detective in both cases. Check. Personal quirks to make them unique. Check. Traumatic past histories to make them sympathetic. Check. Female sidekick (also a detective) to add a feminine viewpoint. Check. Complex mystery plot with a devious and diabolical killer. Check. An attempt to create atmosphere and a feeling of place and time (one was set a few years in the past). Check.

Everything was there for me to love these books. But I didn’t. I never quite engaged with the main characters. Nor could I turn off the writer/analytical part of my brain and lose myself in the story. They weren't bad books, but they were great ones either.

When I got home I found a book from one of my favorite mystery writers (Ann Cleeves) waiting for me on the library hold shelf. It's the first book in a series that has been out in the UK for years. This time, instead of being simply an entertaining way to spend my time, the book gripped me from the beginning.  I stayed up way too late the first night I started reading, and then couldn't wait to get back to it at work on my breaks and my lunch hour.

So what's the difference between this book and the other two moderately entertaining ones? There's a number of things I could focus on, including the quality of the writing. But one aspect I immediately noticed is the difference between the expected and the unexpected. This book starts very slow. Although there's a death--a suicide--early on, neither the real mystery nor the police detective character are introduced until over halfway through the book. The whole first half is backstory and slow build-up and is told from the different perspectives of the main characters.

It's a very subtle and compelling way to craft a mystery. And totally unexpected. The characters are also atypical. They definitely aren't types, nor do they fit standard mystery characterizations. Not even the police detective. There is no checking off boxes with this book. There are subtle, tiny revelations and intriguing details on nearly every page, and the freshness and surprise in way the story unfolds makes it feels like life and makes the characters startlingly real.

This author didn't craft this story based on familiar mystery tropes or character prototypes. She ignored all that and came up with something original, something unexpected.

Ann Cleeves is obviously a brilliant writer. But I think there is a lesson here for us more ordinary genre novelists. Too often we lean on the rules and techniques we've been taught and don't even consider doing the unexpected. We may try to make our plots twisty and suspenseful, but most of the time we settle for the expected in everything else.

That's not everything it takes to write a great book, but maybe the idea of doing the unexpected will help all of us write a less ordinary one.

“Cataloging” Your Book

It’s been over twenty years since I started ordering fiction for the public library where I work. We divide adult fiction into four basic collections: mystery, western, sci-fi/fantasy and fiction (which encompasses everything that doesn’t fit into the first three). In the past, cataloging, or deciding where to shelve a book, was pretty simple. Occasionally there were questions about whether a book was suspense, which we shelve in fiction, or a mystery. Traditionally a mystery is a book that features a private detective or amateur sleuth, or a police procedural, but gradually we started adding crime fiction to the mystery section. Then the thriller category exploded, and some of our patrons thought John Grisham and James Patterson books should be mysteries. (We resisted and kept them in Fiction.)

But that was only the beginning. Charlene Harrison started the True Blood/Sookie Stackhouse series, and we cataloged the books as mystery because that’s the genre she’d been writing in previously. But they weren’t mysteries, really. They had vampires in them. And where do you catalog vampire books? Anne Rice’s vampire books were in fiction. But other authors, like Laurell Hamilton, wrote vampire books that had a lot of supernatural elements and those books seemed to fit better in sci-fi/fantasy. And then Jim Butcher started a fantasy series featuring a detective, and where do you put those?

Dystopian fiction has traditionally been cataloged as fiction, probably because classic dystopian novels like 1984 and The Handmaiden’s Tale are considered literature, which meant they’re shelved in fiction. But if a dystopian novel has zombies, does it really belong in fiction? Wouldn’t it check out better in sci fi/fantasy?

In the end, that’s what usually drives my decision: Where will the book check out best? Where will the readers searching for that kind of book most likely look for it? That’s why the question of what genre your book fits into is so important to you as a writer. Readers have to find your book. If the people who would love your story don’t find it in the area of the library—or more importantly, the section of the bookstore, digital or otherwise—they usually browse in, they’re never going to discover your book.

You can’t control where your book is shelved in libraries or bookstores, but you do have some control over how it is marketed. And that process starts even before you the sell the book to a publisher. It may even affect how you write the book, as in which genre rules you decide to follow or which ones you decide to break. When you make a pitch to an editor or agent, you should be telling them things about your book that help them categorize it so they can see how it fits into their company’s marketing plan.

If you’re indie-publishing your book, you have total control over the cover, the blurb and the category/genre it’s listed in. Which means you really can fine-tune where it’s going to be “shelved”, in either a digital bookstore or physical building. So think a lot about where your book fits in the market. What are some popular books that are like yours? What categories are they listed in on-line? What do their covers look like? How are they described, both in blurbs and by readers?

It can be overwhelming, but ultimately this is your baby. You want to make sure your book ends up in the right place so people can find it and fall in love.

Reading On the Screen

On my last trip, I did something unthinkable. I didn’t take any books. Print books, that is. I did have a number of ebooks on my tablet, including two that I acquired especially to read on this trip. One I borrowed from the library’s ebook catalog; the other I purchased.

My conversion to ebooks has been gradual. Except in cases when it’s the only way I can obtain a book I’m interested in, I seldom read ebooks except when traveling. Then the convenience is hard to beat. A slim, lightweight tablet versus pounds of books. The ability to enlarge the print when the lighting is poor, and to read without using those horrible glaring lights they have on airplanes. By syncing my tablet with my phone, I can continue to read on it during the twenty minutes of takeoff and immediately after when laptops and tablets must be stowed away.

Another advantage to ebooks is obvious. It cost me $13.99 to buy an ebook copy of the literary bestseller I took on the trip. If I’d sprung for print it would have cost me seven dollars more. And unless I wanted to take a chance that I could find a copy in an airport bookstore, I would have had order the book a few days ahead of my trip so it could be shipped to me.

On the downside, you are dependent on electricity to charge your device, while print is always there. Which why it’s good to have a back-up print book for emergencies, like when you leave your charging cord in the hotel and don’t have time to shop for a new one right away.

And there are other disadvantages. Reading an ebook is more tiring, since even though the print on the screen appears crisp and sharp, in fact your brain is smoothing out the uneven edges of the pixelated letters to make them appear that way. Also, for reading at night, the bright light of the device decreases the production of melatonin in the brain, so reading an ebook before bed is more likely to cause insomnia.

And even though the device shows you on every page what percentage of the book you’ve already read, going back to re-read a few pages in an ebook is much more cumbersome and tedious than flipping through the pages in a print book. If you’re reading a complex story with lots of characters, that can be frustrating. It’s like everything you’ve already read falls off into a void and disappears, and the only part of the book that is real is the page in front of you.

As a writer, I find this aspect of ebooks troubling. Many of my books are no longer available in print, unless you can find a yellowed copy in a used bookstore. Which means from now on, almost everyone who reads my books will be doing so in the digital format. It makes my stories that I spent hours and hours of my life creating seem like any other consumer product—a bag of potato chips or a cup of coffee—to be consumed and then forgotten. My story, my words, are just ephemera.

Although from another perspective, exactly the opposite is true. My print books will eventually crumble to dust, while my ebooks could potentially live on and on forever in the digital realm.

But this potential advantage is canceled out by another aspect of ebooks. According to studies, they don’t have quite the same impact and influence that print books do. This is because print is tactile, which helps our brains create a stronger memory of what we’ve read. The physical act of turning pages, the sensation of the number of pages held in your left hand versus those in your right, the location of the words on the page—all those things help your brain store the information you’ve read more effectively. My digital stories will last longer, but they have less meaning to the people who read them.

And finally, the ease of producing ebooks means that my stories are no longer competing for readers’ attention with thousands of other books, but with literally millions. My story and vision is drowned in an endless sea of ebooks.

Ebooks are like so many things in this rapidly-changing, breathlessly expanding technological world. All these innovations have made the exchange of information easier and faster, but now the sheer volume of what we’re exposed to threatens to render the actual content meaningless.

I leave you with a quote from Jim Morrison’s Lords and New Creatures: “We have metamorphosed from a mad body dancing on the hillside to a pair of eyes staring in the dark.” He was referring to people living through TV and film instead of experiencing life. Now we live through the reality of our handheld devices.

Why Bother

At a recent get-together with several writer friends, we got to discussing some of the gloomier aspects of the business: the sheer number of books available, the pain of rejection letters, the struggle to find ways to promote that actually work. The one individual in the group who is still trying to get published traditionally finally threw up her hands and said, “Why do we do it? Why should we even bother writing when everything seems be against us?”

It’s a good question, and one that I—and most writers I know—have struggled with at various times. We joke that we could make more money per hour working in a fast food restaurant. Shake our heads in disbelief at the writers who somehow crank out a half dozen books a year, while we agonize to produce one. Stifle our envy of those who are lucky enough to write the right book at the right time and end up with a bestseller. We long for the good old days, before all the major publishers became corporate entities with little interest in books in themselves, who today only see publishing as a way to make money.

Everywhere you look there are reasons to become discouraged and give up writing. Some of us do. I’ve had several friends who’ve quit writing because of their disgust with the industry. Having had their hearts broken by the system, they are still licking their wounds rather than writing. I understand their pain and their desire to be free of it. I wonder sometimes if I was starting out now, if I would have the resolve to persevere and keep fighting for years for that first contract offer.

And yet, I know I would keep writing. Because I was hooked from that first moment, somewhere in chapter three of my first book, when my characters came to life and shared their story with me while I frantically tried to write it down. There is a writer’s high, just as there is that thrilling state for athletes when they enter the zone, and everything is magic.

There’s a perfectly logical explanation for that mystical state of bliss. Scientists have studied the brains of people as they exercise and clearly tracked the release of endorphins in the brain, those incredibly addictive chemicals that give us a feeling of well-being and even euphoria. I don’t know that they’ve ever studied writers for the same phenomenon, but as far as I’m concerned, they don’t have to. I have no doubt that writing fiction does something to my brain, flooding it with feel-good chemicals. It doesn’t always happen. I’ve had weeks and even months go by when writing was more of a slow plod rather than an enticing high. But having experienced writing nirvana, I always know it’s out there. And the tantalizing memory of that lovely altered state keeps me going.

There is another reason why I bother writing. Because writing is an excellent form of escape. Writing soothes me when I’m frustrated and irritated. I may not be able to control the people in my life, but I can (mostly) control my fictional characters. Writing also takes me away from things that stress me. The intense focus of the process distracts me from my problems and helps me put them in perspective. And finally, writing is antidote to the boring and bland. I get to experience the extreme highs of life all over again. Along with my characters, I fall in love for the first time, reach thrilling goals, conquer my fears and experience the satisfaction of great accomplishment. I get to travel to exotic locations and time travel to other eras. I actually get to be other people, and forget about my own reality.

I first discovered this enchanted aspect of fiction when I learned to read. I’m still in thrall to delights of a good book. Books have gotten me through a lot of tough times in my life. I firmly believe that as long as I am able escape into fictional worlds, I can survive almost anything.

Writing is a trickier means of escape than reading, and not always dependable. But when it works it is even more satisfying, resulting in the double pleasure of not only escaping stress, conflict and depression, but creating your own wonderful alternative reality at the same time.

Deep down, that is why a lot of us bother to write. Because we’re getting something in the process that is far more meaningful than publishing success. We’re finding happiness and fulfillment.

Writing Productivity–How Do You Improve It?

I came away from the Colorado Gold enthused and energized from being around other writers, the only people who truly understand that part of my life. Even the best friends and closest family members don’t really get it, unless they’re also writers. I also came away with the realization that I have to find a way to be more productive. I’m convinced all the great marketing in the world is of no use if you don’t publish frequently and consistently.

Not only have I’ve heard this write-faster, publish-faster refrain on writer blogs and at conferences, but I’ve seen evidence of its truth in my experience maintaining a library fiction collection. I’m currently weeding, culling out books that haven’t checked out in four or more years. The majority of books I weed are either one-book wonders or older books that may have checked out well in the beginning, but now just sit there because the author hasn’t released anything new.

Facing this “inconvenient truth”, that I need to finish books faster, I’ve struggled to find ways to increase my productivity. It seems there are two strategies: to spend more time writing and/or, to write faster.

One way to spend more time writing would be to spend less time on email loops and social media. The downside of this plan is that if I give up on the relationships and contacts I’ve built on-line, I won’t have anyone to help me market when I finally do have a book published.

Another idea I had was to change my writing schedule to give myself more productive time. I’ve always written in the mornings. But that inevitably seems like the best time to work on social media. If I wait until evenings after work, I tend to miss things. But maybe I could write at night. I used to do this, especially once I got deep into a book. So, that’s something to pursue.

Then there’s the idea of writing faster. To do this, it seems like I need to change the way I write. I believe I used to write faster, before I was so conscious of the mistakes I was making. My rough drafts these days are usually not that rough, at least in term of the writing. Although I sometimes leaves holes for names, research terms, or information I don’t want to look up right at the moment, my first drafts are fairly clean and detailed. That’s the reason I’ve never participated in NaNoWriMo. The idea of super-fast writing and just getting words on paper seems impossible to me. While I don’t carefully craft each sentence, I do try to make sure my sentences vary in structure and length, as well as editing out my known over-used words and other bad habits.

But maybe I’m taking too much time crafting my prose the first time around. Maybe I should let myself write a little sloppier, in the interest of getting through the first draft faster.

You could argue that that self-editing has to be done at some point, so it all comes out in the end. While that is true, because I plot as I write (Stupid, stupid, I know; but plotting never works for me), taking time to craft my prose slows down the development of the story, which makes the whole first draft take longer. So, one of my strategies to get faster might be to stop self-editing as much. Simply get the story down and worry about the details later.

These are my ideas for trying to increase my writing productivity. I’d love to hear from other writers. How about you, what strategies do you use to get yourself to the end of a book quickly?

Of course, as I ask this, I wonder if the truly productive authors maybe don’t take the time to read writing blogs!

Getting to Know You: The RMFW Q&A Project #7

The Getting to Know You Project is intended to introduce RMFW members with short responses to three questions, a photo, and a few social media links if available. If you would like to participate in the project for future months, please email Pat Stoltey at blog@rmfw.org

Jamie Ferguson

Website & blog: http://jamieferguson.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jamie.ferguson.author
Twitter: https://twitter.com/jamie_ferguson
Google Plus: https://plus.google.com/+JamieFergusonAuthor
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/jamieferguson
Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/jamieauthor/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jamie.ferguson.author/

2016_Jamie Ferguson1. We know the who (that's you), so will you give us the what, why, when, where, and how you write?

I write because I love writing. To me, crafting a story is like creating a sculpture. Sure, at times it’s hard work, but writing is by far the most rewarding type of work I’ve ever done.

My writing is very character-focused. I love to dig into what my characters think and feel. I primarily write contemporary fantasy and historical fiction, but I focus on writing compelling, character-based stories regardless of what genre they fit in.

I try to work on something writing-related every single day. This helps me keep my head in the game. For example, if I need a break from a manuscript I might work through a few lessons in a class, research something for a future project, or make progress on one of the many administrative tasks on my list. My favorite writing spot is sitting on the couch, with my dogs nearby to keep me company.

2. What is one fun thing few RMFW members know about you?

I have several forms of synesthesia, including the kind where numbers, letters, and words have associated colors and feelings. And yes, this does come into play when I’m naming characters in my stories.

3. What is your most favorite non-writing activity, the one that gives you the greatest joy?

Spending time with my dogs. I have two border collies who I take hiking, train/compete in agility with, and of course we spend a lot of time playing fetch. A LOT of time...

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Mary Gillgannon

Website: http://www.marygillgannon.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mary.gillgannon
Twitter: https://twitter.com/MaryGillgannon
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/956290.Mary_Gillgannon
Google+: https://plus.google.com/110101925775202977316/posts

2016_Mary Gillgannon1. We know the who (that's you), so will you give us the what, why, when, where, and how you write?

Although I’ve been an obsessive reader since grade school, it wasn’t until I started working at a library and discovered the historical romance genre that I dared to believe I could write a book. My first “office” was a tiny corner of our family room. I wrote mostly in the mornings on weekends and after my kids went to school and before I had to go to work. I now have a beautiful upstairs office that I share with a dog and three cats. I still write best in the mornings, despite not being a morning person at all.

2. What is one fun thing few RMFW members know about you?

As a teenager, I was obsessed with Jim Morrison of the Doors, and I credit a lot of my literary background to his influence. My obsession lasted into adulthood and right after college I moved to L.A. and lived in tiny apartment on Venice beach. Great atmosphere for writing poetry, but as a woman, I found L.A. a very scary place. I decided my dream life was elsewhere and moved back to Wyoming and married my boyfriend from college.

3. What is your most favorite non-writing activity, the one that gives you the greatest joy?

Although I still love reading and have become rather fanatical about gardening, my real passion outside of writing is travel. I’ve made five trips to various parts of the British Isles, including four visits to Wales, my spiritual homeland. I’ve also enjoyed “winter break” trips to Mexico, Belize and the West Indies. Travel feeds my creative spirit, offers research opportunities and fuels story ideas.

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Janet Lane

Website: http://janetlane.net/
Blog: https://janetlane.wordpress.com/ and RMFW Blog
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/janetlaneauthor
Twitter: https://twitter.com/janetlaneauthor
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/15418008.Janet_Lane

2016_Janet Lane1. We know the who (that's you), so will you give us the what, why, when, where, and how you write?

I write "History, made passionate in medieval England," aka historical romance and women's fiction. It's my passion because I firmly believe that "Amor vincit omnia" -- Love conquers all. I love exploring relationships and making the impossible, possible through my characters. My favorite reviews mention that my writing transports them to my story worlds and makes them care for my characters. I write from my home office at an elevation of 8,300 ft. in Morrison, frequently crashing my husband's home office (better view), and wherever my MacPro and I travel.

2. What is one fun thing few RMFW members know about you?

I directed my community's annual musical production for 22 years, and I ran away from home at 6, 12, and 14. Oh, and my husband, John, and I were married at the Renaissance Festival.

3. What is your most favorite non-writing activity, the one that gives you the greatest joy?

Must I choose one? I love to ski, spend time with my family and new grandson, and play tennis. And I love good treasure finds at estate sales and consignment stores.

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Cindi Myers

Website: http://www.cindimyers.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CindyMyersauthor
Twitter: https://twitter.com/CMyersTex
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/24560.Cindi_Myers

2016_Cindi Myers1. We know the who (that's you), so will you give us the what, why, when, where, and how you write?

I write romance and women's fiction -- right now I'm writing Romantic Suspense for Harlequin Intrigue.

I write stories because I can't NOT write them. I've been making up stories as long as I can remember. It's part of who I am. (And I've been making a living as a full-time writer since 1997, so if I quit now I'd have to go out and get a "real" job. At this point, I am woefully unsuited to the corporate world.)

When -- since I produce 6 or more books a year and have for years now, you could say I write all the time. I do try to keep to a 5 day a week schedule.

Where -- I have a lovely office in my home on the Western slope of Colorado -- Ridgway. The window over my desk looks out onto my yard. But I also write at retreats, on camping trips, on the sofa, on my front porch -- wherever.

How -- I'm a plotter. There's still lots of room for surprises and innovations along the way, but I like the security of having a road map.

2. What is one fun thing few RMFW members know about you?

I was once the only woman employee at an all-gay-male travel agency. Talk about a fun bunch of guys!

3. What is your most favorite non-writing activity, the one that gives you the greatest joy?

You're only going to let me choose one? Well, I never could follow rules (that non-corporate thing). I love to garden and grow vegetables, flowers and fruit.
I also love to sing and sing in two choirs here on the western slope.

Many thanks to Jamie, Mary, Janet, and Cindi for volunteering for the Getting to Know You Project. If you'd like to participate in future GTKY posts, please email me at blog@rmfw.org

On Reviews

An author friend recently thanked me for posting an Amazon review for her latest book. “How do you always know when I’ve reviewed your books?” I asked. “Because I read my reviews,” she answered. “All of them?” “Yes.”

I’m the opposite. I seldom read my reviews. I might occasionally check my star rating and the number of reviews I’ve received. Or even glance at the first few when my book comes out. But after that, I avoid them.

I’ve put some thought into why my friend and I have such different approaches to reviews. Maybe it’s because my friend is a very non-controversial writer. She writes inspirational romances, and her books are what are called “gentle reads”. They’re never going to offend anyone, or provoke strong reactions. I can be a very polarizing writer. For example, when I entered my latest historical romance in the RITA, I got scores back of 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. Readers' responses to my books tend to be all over the place.

Since the beginning of my career, my books have gotten mixed reviews, and I’ve come to accept there are aspects of my world view and creative vision that are a bit different from that of most romance writers. I also have a very distinctive voice, which draws some readers in, while turning others off. I can’t change either of those things. And so I seldom read reviews, because a lot of the time it’s my voice or my story vision that the reviewers are reacting to, and their opinion, good or bad, isn’t going to be helpful.

In contrast, my friend reads her reviews to discover what readers like and don’t like in her books. The idea is to figure out how to write a better, more compelling book next time. It’s great when a reviewer gives you something specific that you can process and use in the future. But a lot of the time, that’s not what happens. Many readers don’t analyze what they didn’t like. They simply express their emotional reaction to the book.

Professional reviews are another matter. I read a lot of them in my job ordering fiction for a library. Professional reviewers tend to discuss both the good and bad aspects of a book. When they are critical, they tend to criticize specific things. They will mention slow pacing or tired tropes, clichéd characters or awkward prose, things like that. They also tend to balance negative things with a disclaimer, like “Despite the over-the-top action and lack of character depth, urban fantasy readers will be pleased”. Or, “Her (the writer’s) fans will find what they’re looking for.”

In those cases, the reviewer is recognizing that even though they didn’t like the book, there is still going to be demand for it. For someone like me, who is purchasing books for a library, that’s very helpful. I can’t simply buy the books that get the best reviews. I have to buy the books that the patrons at the library where I work want to read. And trust me, those aren’t always the ones that get the best professional reviews.

Despite my resistance to reading reviews of my books, I have to admit reviews have influenced my writing. I’m currently rewriting a book that was published almost fifteen years ago. As I rewrite, I’m conscious of the fact a fair number of the reviews of the original version found my heroine unsympathetic and cold. This time around I’m trying to make her more appealing. I’ve not only tried to get inside her head more and better reveal her psychological state, I’ve actually changed the plot so her actions aren’t so frustrating to the reader. I’m trying to make her less flawed and more “heroic”.

Bear in mind, it’s taken me fifteen years to get to the point where I can do something positive with those negative reviews. And that’s the thing you have to be careful about. Bad reviews can be devastating. They can demoralize you to the point that you feel like giving up writing. Or, they can push you to make changes that don’t play to your strengths as a writer. You have to remember that for every reader who dislikes a certain aspect of a book, there may be another one who loves that very thing. There are books I find plodding and dull, while other readers see them as beautifully crafted and complex. There are books that bore me because the characters seem shallow and uninteresting. But other readers don’t care because they’re focused on the action and suspense.

Over and over we’re told that a review is only one person’s opinion. And that truly is something to keep in mind. If that opinion helps you write a better book next time, then maybe it’s a good review, even if it is critical of your work. But if it does nothing except ruin your day, then it really is a bad review.

How about you? Do you regularly read your reviews? Do they influence your writing?

The Trouble With Muses

A fellow author shared an in-depth look at her writing process on her blog. It was so methodical and logical. I was overwhelmed with envy. All of you writers who can plot and outline and plan—you don’t know how lucky you are. I’ve tried to do those things, but I’m always thwarted by my muse.

My muse doesn’t care for plotting and all that boring stuff. She prefers to follow her instincts. Because of the hundreds of books I/she has read over the years, my muse figures she knows how stories work and can create them without all that plotting crap.

Most of the time, I can’t really argue with her. I’ve published sixteen books and finished drafts of several more. So obviously, her way works…sort of. But there are times I get frustrated with her and can’t help wondering: If my writing process was more organized and structured, would I not be only more productive, but also more successful?

Because not only am I at the mercy of my muse in terms of the creative process, but also when it comes to what book I write at any given time. If not for her, I’m certain it would be easier for me to write the books that would advance my career. Instead of bouncing around from sub-genre to sub-genre, I could keep going in the same one, or write the books in a series one after another instead of having gaps of years between them.

Even though she’s made me what I am as a writer, my muse can be aggravatingly arrogant. Not to mention capricious, moody and stubborn. And she’s getting worse as she gets older. It used to be a lot easier to control her. In the past I sometimes insisted she get to work on a certain story. Forced her to help me write books that weren’t really what she was interested in at the time. Now, granted, those were not my most successful or best-reviewed books. But at least I had the illusion of being disciplined and responsible in terms of my career. Now if I tried to make her work on a book she had no interest in she would just laugh at me, or go off and sulk.

And the truth is, without her, I can’t create. I can write blog posts and letters and even blurbs. But I can’t write fiction. No short stories or novels. For that I need her. And she knows that. Knows I’m at her mercy and without her, I’m someone who’s literate and can put words together but who lacks the creative spark to tell stories and make them come to life.

My muse doesn’t ever seem to get older or mature. She remains a stubborn, bratty child. Because that’s what she is, my childish self. Before I grew up and learned to pay attention in school and do what I was told. She is the daydreaming, fanciful child inside me. The one who spent hours in imaginary play, alone, outside in the Midwestern countryside, spinning stories in my head and sometimes telling them to myself out loud, with no one to listen but the birds and butterflies and caterpillars and the flowers and the trees.

I grow older, and hopefully, wiser. But my muse doesn’t. She remains frozen in time. With all the gifts of her childish outlook and all the flaws. I can’t tame her or make her mind me. I’ve learned not to try. And so I coax and nudge. I coddle and indulge her. Anything to keep her by my side. Without her, there’s no magic. No creativity. I’m just a boring, ordinary…adult.

The Good of the Whole

I’ve been gardening for about ten years. In the beginning I started with easy plants, varieties that thrive in the Rocky Mountain climate without much effort. But I wanted more. So, I kept adding things. Species that are more difficult to grow, but better fulfill my vision for my garden. Every year there is some color or height of plant my garden seems to need.

But I only have so much space and my garden is getting terribly crowded. Something has to come out before I add anything more. It’s a tough decision. How do you uproot a plant that is lovely and thriving to replace it with something else? It’s seems so harsh.

2016_Gillgannon_gardenWhat will it be? Which plant gets to live and which plant gets weeded out? I consider color. I love purple, but a good share of my garden blooms in that hue: dame’s rocket and columbines, hardy geraniums and delphiniums. With all that purple, the lavender haze of cat mint and sage seem like too much. These are some of the first perennials I planted and they’ve gotten huge, three and four feet wide. I prop them up with low fencing, trying to keep them under control. But something has to give.

I make my decision. It will be the sage. I will dig them out. Not to die, but to pass on to my friend who lives in the prairie/mountain landscape west of town. She has a whole hill to cover with tough, durable species.

Why the sage, and not the cat mint? Well, my cats, non-ironically, like the cat mint, and spend quite a bit of time rolling around on it early in the season. Later, the cat mint will attract bees by the dozen, until the plants come alive with swarming pollinators: honeybees, bumble bees and the occasional swallowtail butterfly.

Writing can be like gardening. (You were wondering when I would finally mention writing, weren’t you?) It’s difficult to pull up and discard a whole subplot. But sometimes the story gets too crowded, and you have to think long and hard about what drives the book. What is its essence? Are there scenes that seem repetitious? They may be tight and functional in and of themselves, but do they make the book better?

I write like I garden, randomly adding things, following a plot-line or story arc to see where it goes. But sometimes it gets too rambling, and I know I have to cut. I have to make my decision the way I do when gardening. What fulfills my vision? What can I do to make my garden/book better? What can I take out and not really miss?

Words, sentences, plotlines. They’re alive, blooming, full of possibilities. So hard to dig them up and discard them. But I have to remember the whole garden. The book. The story. That’s what other people see. What they read.

A bit wrenching, but it has to be done. There. Gone with a click of the mouse.

Already, the story flows better. Seems more cohesive and somehow more real. I’ve done the right thing and dug out those extra words that were getting in the way of the beautiful whole.

Mind, Body and Writing

A friend of mine who has endured cancer treatment and chronic pain issues for the last several years recently announced that she was taking a break from writing. Cognitive issues related to chemotherapy have made story structure and continuity, even word recall, a huge challenge for her. But even more than that, I think she is tired of the struggle to cope, to be productive and meet deadlines. And maybe she’s just tired, period.

Because writing does take a certain physical stamina. It doesn’t seem like it should. After all, you sit while you’re doing it. Some people even recline in bed as they write on a laptop. I’m pretty sure most non-writers look at writing as very non-demanding physically. I’ll never forget when Stephen King was injured in that freak car accident and one of the patrons at the library where I work said something to the effect of “Well, maybe now he’ll be forced to do nothing but write and will get his books finished faster.”

Not only did the remark seem incredibly callous, as if King being injured was a positive thing, but it also seemed very stupid. Someone injured and in pain is not going to be a productive writer. And indeed, that experience took a terrible toll on King and his creativity for a number of years, as he has documented in various autobiographical pieces.

Writing can be an escape and a rejuvenating experience. But it takes energy, and energy comes from a healthy body. Many successful writers when interviewed will talk about the importance of physical exercise in their daily routine. They know that keeping the body in shape and moving helps keep the words and story ideas flowing. And recent studies have shown that physical exercise helps stave off dementia and cognitive decline as we age.

My friend needs time to heal, to learn ways of coping with the damage that chemotherapy and chronic pain have wrought on her body and her spirit. We speak of “filling the well”—through life experiences, travel, contact with other people, through living a full and interesting life. But sometimes “filling the well” involves resting. Simply being, rather than always doing.

I tend to be rather driven, especially in regards to writing. I set goals for myself and get frustrated when I don’t meet them. I was very productive the first part of this year, but then life intervened. Both good and bad things have sucked up my time and reduced my writing pace to a crawl. My lack of productivity has gnawed at me and increased my stress. And then I met with my friend and she discussed her decision, and I realized that I need to remember to nurture and care for myself physically if I want to have the energy and spark to be a productive writer.

When I started out, I saw writing as an escape from stress and a source of positive energy. But as I’ve gotten older I realize that writing requires physical energy even as it produces positive mental energy. Which means it’s important to do things that help me increase my physical vitality. Exercise is one of those. But more subtly, taking it easy can also help. There are activities I used to see as wasting time or taking me away from writing: Puttering in my garden, reading the newspaper or a magazine. Having sociological discussions with my daughter. Hanging out on the patio and listening to music with my husband.

I used to feel guilty for doing those things, but I’ve begun to understand that they help “fill the well” in an important way. Those activities relax me and reduce my stress, which rejuvenates me physically so I have the energy to write.